Home is where the heart is... until it isn’t. Case in point for Austin FC are the two newest arrivals to the Club, Matt Besler and Diego Fagundez. Both are hometown legends of the very highest order in MLS. Both have spent their entire professional careers and indeed most of their lives serving the clubs they grew up supporting. But both now find themselves eagerly heading to Austin as Free Agents. Kansas City and New England’s losses are very much Austin FC’s gain, and both are set to play important roles for Josh Wolff and Claudio Reyna’s developing team.
Let’s start with Besler. 34 in February, and still as hungry and excited by the game as he was as a rookie in 2009. Since that debut, there aren’t many defenders who have played as many MLS games, and indeed games period, as Besler. 345 of them in total, not to mention his U.S. Men’s National Team appearances which of course included the 2014 World Cup. Through them all he has personified cool, calm, class and composure. He’s never been the fastest, but his ability to instigate attacks with pinpoint long-range passing is still very much on point.
His leadership qualities, the example he sets, and simply being able to make others around him better will all be hugely valuable for Austin FC, particularly in the first year where everything is new. Not for Besler. He’s been there, seen it all, and probably tackled it too. And doubly so in the Western Conference where he has spent most of his career.
It’s a pickup that reminds me a little of the Portland Timbers’ signing Nat Borchers, who was also verging on “veteran” status at the age of 34 after seven very successful years with Real Salt Lake. Borchers had a stabilizing, even galvanizing effect on the Timbers that year. Oh, by the way, that year was 2015. It ended pretty well in Portland. Just saying....
Diego Fagundez is different. He has literally lived and breathed New England soccer since arriving as a five-year old from Uruguay. He was the Golden Child, and very much lived up to the billing. A sultry playmaker and sometimes deadly finisher with a wand of a right foot and sublime vision. Those talents are still very much there. His place on the team was not, however, as he went from teenage sensation to seemingly the odd man out under Bruce Arena.
The simplest explanation is the arrival of Carles Gil. Fagundez may be multi-faceted, but his preferred position has always been playmaker, and Gil’s arrival took that away. His head was also undoubtedly turned by overtures from Uruguayan powerhouse Nacional. The loan offer was rejected by the Revs, but the sense was Fagundez has never quite been the same since.
The time for a fresh start was clearly ripe and Austin offers the perfect platform. Wolff and Reyna value his technique and his dynamism, and his finishing in what could be a ‘goalscoring by committee” approach. He is certainly versatile and he is beyond enthusiastic. He will also enjoy operating on the manicured grass at the Austin FC stadium, rather than the rough turf at Gillette, and, in my opinion, he will benefit from the slightly less physical elements of Western Conference play vs. what he was dealt in the East. In short, you don’t find many 25-year-old players with over 50 goals in MLS. But Austin FC have done just that, and what’s more they have done it at zero cost.
Two MLS free agents with over two decades of knowledge and know-how in a league that absolutely requires it. As an expansion team setting sail into uncharted waters, Besler and Fagundez will help provide constant reference points, along with the likes of Ring, Lima, Sweat and Hoesen. For the club’s two newest arrivals, Austin may not feel like home just yet, but helping Austin FC feel right at home in MLS from day one is something they will both absolutely hang their hats on, and it won’t take long for the magic of Austin to make them both feel right at home in ATX.